Cold season 1, bonus 3: Nutty Putty – Full episode transcript

(Sound of light rain)

Dave Cawley: Standing at the top of Blowhole Hill, I can see storm cells sliding south across the Cedar Valley. Off to the west, the Tintic Mountains obscure my view of the Rush Valley. Beyond that, a sea of basin and range, stretching on across Utah and Nevada. It’s early March. Rain has already softened the ground. We’re eight miles off the pavement down a muddy, rutted dirt road.

Spencer Cannon: As you saw coming out here, there’s no fast way to get here. It takes the better part of an hour from Spanish Fork to get here. Anybody from anywhere in Utah County, the, the closest anybody would be in arrival time would be 35 to 40 minutes at the very best if somebody was coming from say Saratoga Springs or, or uh Goshen or Eureka or something like that.

Dave Cawley: If you’re not familiar with an of this geography, that’s okay. All you need to understand is we’re way off the beaten path, standing on the fringe of Utah’s West Desert next to a hole in the ground known as Nutty Putty Cave.

Spencer Cannon: The opening to the cave, it starts up on flat ground up here, flat rocky ground, and you go down into the ground about 15 feet and from there you have to go horizontal. And the only way to get through the first part of the opening, which is 10 or 15 feet long, is to either go flat on your back or flat on your stomach and just kind of move your way through carefully like that and then the cave opens up into some larger caverns.

Dave Cawley: West Valley City police case files indicate they received the first of many tips about Nutty Putty Cave on December 14th, 2009, exactly one week after the date of Susan’s disappearance. People wondered if Josh might have disposed of Susan’s body not in a mine, but in the cave.

This is a bonus episode of Cold: Nutty Putty Cave. I’m Dave Cawley.

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Dave Cawley: Before looking at the plausibility of the Nutty Putty Cave idea, we have to determine if Josh was even aware of the cave. I can tell you with 100-percent certainty that the answer is yes. Here’s why: while sifting through hundreds of Josh Powell’s digital files, I came across a scanned copy of a postcard. The front showed a picture the Heart of Timpanogos, a rock feature inside Utah’s Timpanogos Cave National Monument. The postcard had never been mailed. I could see the address lines on the back side were blank. 

There was no stamp or postmark. What made this postcard curious were two lines scribbled on the back in Josh’s handwriting. They read:

Eric Openshaw (as Josh Powell from undated postcard): Nutty Putty Caves in Eureka (south of Spanish Fork). Hole in the ground with maze.

Dave Cawley: I don’t know when Josh wrote those words or why. The postcard wasn’t dated. But it proved he was at the least aware of Nutty Putty. In addition, West Valley police located a few small, thumbnail images on Josh Powell’s laptop computer, the one they seized with a search warrant the day after Susan’s disappearance. One showed the opening of Nutty Putty. A timestamp showed it had been accessed on December 4th, three days before Susan’s disappearance.

Another showed a man named John Edward Jones who had died in Nutty Putty Cave the night before Thanksgiving. The timestamp for that photo showed it was accessed at 5:25 p.m. on December 6th, about the same time Josh was looking at the weather and information about Ely, Nevada.

John Jones’ death in Nutty Putty was, along with the disappearance of Susan Powell, one of the biggest Utah news stories of 2009.

John Hollenhorst (from November 26, 2009 KSL TV archive): Since Tuesday night, rescuers struggled against the unforgiving topography of Nutty Putty Cave.

Dave Cawley: John had grown up in Utah, attending Brigham Young University before leaving for medical school at the University of Virginia. He was 26 and in his second year there when he, his then pregnant wife and their 14-month-old daughter came to Utah to visit family over Thanksgiving.

John enjoyed spelunking.

Leon Jones (from November 25, 2009 KSL TV archive): He’s been in caves. I got pictures of him at the bottom of the Bloomington Caves, in a tight spot.

Dave Cawley: He’d explored other caves for fun. So on the evening of Tuesday, November 24th, 2009, he and several friends entered Nutty Putty to probe its narrow passageways. But, while wriggling through one narrow stretch at about 8:45 p.m., John became stuck. He couldn’t go forward. He couldn’t go backward. It took some time for other members of his party to discover his predicament and exit the cave, where they could call for help.

Spencer Cannon: Yeah, we got notified late at night. It was after 9 p.m. That’s not uncommon. That, that happens, but where it was, we knew right away that there were a certain set of challenges that we would have to defeat right from the very beginning. Y’know, ggetting here, getting any resources here that we needed to try and effect a rescue, so there’s a major concern there.

Dave Cawley: That’s Utah County Sheriff’s Sergeant Spencer Cannon. Nutty Putty’s remote location meant it took time just for the first responders to get to there, let alone begin the rescue.

The rescuers knew a thing or two about Nutty Putty. It had a troubled history. In fact, Nutty Putty had been closed for several years prior to 2009, due to some close calls.

John Hollenhorst (from November 26, 2009 KSL TV archive): After those earlier incidents, authorities considered closing the cave, instead they’ve allowed a caving group to manage it.

Spencer Cannon: We had two rescues within about a week of each other about four years earlier. One was, I don’t know, maybe 6 or 7 hours long. The other one was about 11 hours long. Uh, it wasn’t the exact same spot. John was stuck quite a bit further in along the same route where the other two had been rescued from.

Dave Cawley: The sheriff’s office called out its volunteer search and rescue team.

Spencer Cannon: Our search and rescue team has a number of members who are experienced cavers and uh, we had experience rescuing people from this cave relatively recently prior to this incident. The good thing about it is that, uh, if there is any good thing about having experience here, is that we, we knew what we were facing. So we knew from the outset exactly what equipment had to be here, what resources had to be here.

Dave Cawley: They went right to work. The members of John’s group told the rescuers where they would find their pinned friend.

Spencer Cannon: He was originally described to have been in an area called Bob’s Push which is just near the Birth Canal area, uh, both restricted physical features inside the cave that are challenging, but uh, it’s where a lot of people want to go when they go in the cave. He was actually beyond that in an unnamed, really unexplored part of the cave that uh, as far as we know nobody had been to. We know now that uh, John had been there, but uh, we don’t know that anybody else ever had been there.

Dave Cawley: Any hope they might have had for a quick and easy rescue evaporated once they reached John’s location.

Eldon Packer (from November 26, 2009 KSL TV archive): Where he is trapped he is on a bend, so there is no there is no way to really get a hold on him to be able to pull him directly straight back.

Dave Cawley: “Constricted” doesn’t begin to describe the narrow space.

Eldon Packer (from November 26, 2009 KSL TV archive): We’ve never seen anything this technical, this tough to get in and get this person out.

John Hollenhorst (from November 26, 2009 KSL TV archive): The Rescuers had to squeeze through narrow twisting passageways. John Jones’ feet were sticking out, his head down, his body completely plugging a narrow tunnel 10 to 14 inches wide.

Spencer Cannon: We were fully confident when we got here that, uh, we’d be able to effect the rescue. It’s what, it’s what our search and rescue volunteers do. They, they don’t uh, go someplace expecting to not have the kind of success they want and it took quite a few hours, even, even 15, 20 hours into it we were still confident that uh, we’d be able to get John rescued and out of there.

Dave Cawley: John had become stuck while angled downward about 70 or 80 degrees, with his arms under his chest. The rescuers could see little more than his ankles. Only the smallest members of the rescue team could even reach the spot.

Spencer Cannon: The areas where they were down in there, uh, sometimes you were making another turn before you even finished the other one that you just came through. And in confined areas like that, you had to have small people.

Dave Cawley: The rescuers worked through the night and into the next morning. Nothing they tried seemed to work. As they tugged at John, his rib cage caught on a lip of rock. It was as if he’d been ratcheted into place.

John Hollenhorst (from November 26, 2009 KSL TV archive): State senator John Valentine has been a volunteer search and rescue worker for 30 years. He says the problem the rescuers could not overcome was a small lip of rock, at a critical bend in the narrow tunnel.

John Valentine (from November 26, 2009 KSL TV archive): The lip basically captured the center part of his body, so as you pulled against it, you were pulling like against a fishhook.

Dave Cawley: John was able to communicate with his rescuers, but not see them. They kept up a constant dialogue with him, seeking to buoy his spirits. Meantime, his family waited, hour after hour outside the cave.

Leon Jones (from November 25, 2009 KSL TV archive): John is an incredible young man. And as an old guy I look up to John, umm, and idolize him. He’s a great example to me.

Spencer Cannon: We let them know that he was talking, he was singing church songs. We let them know that we had set up a communication line so that he could talk to his wife, uh, I think he even talked to some other family members as well.

We had that communication line up, partly already in there for the, for the rescue operation, the volunteers that were conducting it.

Dave Cawley: Most media trucks couldn’t make the final climb up the rocky slope of Blowhole Hill, so Spencer met reporters partway down the side.

Spencer Cannon (from November 25, 2009 KSL TV archive): Anytime you’re in a position where you don’t have control over when you come and go, it’s gonna have an effect on a person emotionally.

Spencer Cannon: We were doing the best we could to make sure the media and then along that with the public knew exactly what was going on.

Dave Cawley: The rescue effort continued straight through the day on Wednesday. At one point, the rescuers rigged up a pulley system along the walls of Nutty Putty. They made progress inching John back up over the lip. 

Rescuer (from November 25, 2009 KSL TV archive): He’s free of the tightest spot where gravity was really working against him and he didn’t have any leverage. There’s still some more tight spots in the cave, actually I think we got him past all the hard spots now.

Dave Cawley: But a rope failed and when it did, John dropped back into the trap more tightly than before.

Spencer Cannon (from November 25, 2009 KSL TV archive): We had him to a level spot where he wasn’t heading down hill with his head below his feet. Uh, during the course of that they have a raising system that uh, that was helping to hold him in position. Uh, one of the devices that is part of that system, uh, failed, uh, and uh, Mr. Jones actually ended up falling back into the area where he had been stuck for so long.

Dave Cawley: Best anyone could figure, John was about 125 feet below the surface. Pinpointing his position from above proved tricky. The place he was stuck was unmapped. Drilling to down to him might miss the mark entirely.

As Josh Powell was at Airgas that same afternoon, hounding employees about buying an oxyacetylene torch, exhausted search and rescuers were struggling with an unsolvable problem at Nutty Putty.

Spencer Cannon: I think that there were no options available that were not considered, even seriously considered.

Dave Cawley: Time and gravity conspired against them. John’s head-down position was precarious because it meant blood pooled in his head. His heart had to work extra hard to push that blood away from his brain. Consider it the cardiac equivalent of running a marathon while pinned in place. The strain, hour after hour, proved too much.

Eldon Packer (from November 26, 2009 KSL TV archive): We were able to send some, one of our cavers in close enough to him that they were able to check him, determine that he did pass away.

Dave Cawley: John died just before midnight on November 25, 2009.

Spencer Cannon: Yeah it was 11:56 p.m. on Wednesday night just before Thanksgiving day.

Dave Cawley: His death came just over 27 hours from the point at which he’d first been stuck. Even then, the fatigued rescuers questioned how they would ever manage to free him.

Spencer Cannon: Once John had been declared dead, there were discussions about “How do we get him out?” There were some rather distasteful discussions as well, things that nobody really wanted to do but ultimately the decision was made that uh, it was too much risk for the rescuers to remain there in an effort to get him out and the decision was made to leave him in place.

Dave Cawley: Leaving John’s body in the cave presented some unique considerations. For one, what would keep anyone else from disturbing his final resting place?

Spencer Cannon: Those issues were part of the discussion and uh, if the decision was made that he would have to remain in the cave, uh it then becomes a sacred place for the families. We did not want it to be disturbed for, for John’s sake, for the sake of the families and their uh, peace of mind and to make it a place that they can come back with at least fond memories of John.

Dave Cawley: The effort to rescue John had made headlines across the country. Deputies knew some people would be drawn to the site like birds to a pile of seed.

Spencer Cannon: Initially there had been a gate down at the, at the main entrance to the cave. That stayed in place initially.

Dave Cawley: Could that gate alone protect John’s remains, forever? The cave sat on public land, owned by the state of Utah. The county sheriff floated the idea of closing the cave, permanently.

Spencer Cannon: Yeah, there were a number of uh, uh, entities that were brought into that discussion. There was the officials from the Schools and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, the sheriff’s office, caving enthusiasts here in Utah County and around Utah—

Dave Cawley: The grotto, right?

Spencer Cannon: —the grotto, grotto clubs, we took input from everybody in, in making the decision. John’s family was included in that discussion as well.

Dave Cawley: The idea met immediate resistance, including from the man who’d first discovered and named Nutty Putty in 1960.

Alex Cabrero (from December 3, 2009 KSL TV archive): These cavers understand the tragedy but think the cave could’ve eventually been reopened.

Daniel Kimball (from December 3, 2009 KSL TV archive): Just because of a tragedy, doesn’t mean you have to close it down.

Kyle Parker (from December 3, 2009 KSL TV archive): I think we should have a say on whether or not. We understand the risks in what we are doing and it’s something that we really love to do.

Dave Cawley: Those arguments did not prove persuasive.

Trevor Bradford (from December 3, 2009 KSL TV archive): I think it was kind of a rash decision for them to just close it all at once.

Dave Cawley: At the end of the week, the Utah County Sheriff’s Office made the call.

Alex Cabrero (from December 3, 2009 KSL TV archive): 

The Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration or SITLA which owns the lands said in a statement “while SITLA recognizes that some in the caving community disagree with this decision, SITLA believes that the consensus decision of the various government entities with responsibility for land management, public safety, and search and rescue to close the cave was the correct one.”

Dave Cawley: Nutty Putty would be sealed.

Spencer Cannon: Exactly how to do that was under discussion. What we ended up doing is our EOD folks, our bomb squad, went in. There was an opening not too far from where John was that kind of constricts the, it’s a constricture that you have to go through to where John is and they took a large amount explosives in there, placed them around that smaller opening, came out of the cave and then set that off and the idea was to cause all that rock to come down and close that part of the opening. That happened on the 1st of December. Then uh, on the morning of the 2nd of December, they had a load of concrete come out here — I believe it was about 30 yards — that was poured down into the main opening to give it as permanent of closure as you could get for it.

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Dave Cawley: You might be able to see where this going, but there’s a reason I came out to Nutty Putty myself to speak with Spencer Cannon about that tragedy, more than nine years later. The idea that Susan Powell might also be inside Nutty Putty Cave has persisted. It doesn’t work, for a few reasons.

Spencer Cannon: Susan was seen up until the 6th of December. The opening of, uh, Nutty Putty Cave was permanently closed with 30 yards of concrete and explosives on the 2nd of December.

Dave Cawley: For the sake of argument, let’s say that wasn’t the case. I asked Spencer if he would ever attempt to take a low-clearance, front-wheel-drive minivan to the top of Blowhole Hill in December, in a snowstorm.

Spencer Cannon: Not in a hundred years. I, I, I would say it would be virtually impossible for a off-the-rack, off-the-showroom-floor minivan or passenger car to get up here. Even a small four-wheel-drive SUV would be very, very difficult. Something like a Nissan Rogue or a, even a Toyota 4Runner would have a hard time. Uh, something bigger — a full-size pickup truck or full-size SUV — it’s a challenge getting up here in those vehicles. But a passenger car or a minivan like that, it’s not going to happen.

Dave Cawley: Ok, but what if Josh parked at the bottom of the hill and pulled Susan’s body up the slope in a toboggan?

Spencer Cannon: From the place that you could conceivably get close to it to carry something up and hike up here, you’re better part of a half-mile at least and you still have to hike up another 200 or 300 feet in elevation to get to where the opening of the cave was.

Dave Cawley: Say he summoned Herculean strength to make that climb. Could he then have managed to get past the locked gate and push or pull Susan’s limp body through the narrow aperture of the cave’s mouth while flat on his stomach or back?

Spencer Cannon: That first part of it would be extremely challenging carrying something that is just a, a heavy mass over 100 pounds. Strongest of people would have a hard time doing it in that kind of a configuration. Yeah, anybody who’s been in this opening or been in the Nutty Putty Cave knows how difficult it is to get in there by yourself. To get in there with somebody else or something else, it’s just not reasonable, almost impossible to do given what it would take to haul weight in there that is completely unsupported.

Dave Cawley: Where there’s a will, there’s a way as they say, right? If Josh had somehow managed to defeat all of those obstacles, he would’ve had to do it while avoiding the notice of deputies who were parked just feet away.

Spencer Cannon: There are those, uh, smaller number, who might want to go inside and, and do something or collect something and so we had deputies here 24/7 from early on Thanksgiving morning until it was, uh, sealed on December 2nd with concrete and 24/7 we had somebody here.

Dave Cawley: After that, Josh would’ve had to chisel his way through solid concrete.

Dave Cawley: So what I’m understanding is in your mind, there is zero probability that Susan Powell is here.

Spencer Cannon: Zero probability.

Dave Cawley: Susan Powell cannot be in Nutty Putty Cave.